MI Black History: Grand Rapids’ Barrier-Breaking Mayor

Q: Who was Grand Rapids’ first African-American mayor?

A: Lyman Parks. Born in Indiana in 1917, Parks graduated from Wilberforce University and the Payne Theological Seminary. He held posts at several congregations, including ones in Ann Arbor and River Rouge, before taking the position of First Community AME church in Grand Rapids in 1966. Two years later, he ran to represent the city’s third ward on the city commission and was elected, which made him Grand Rapids’ first African-American city commissioner. His fellow commissioners selected him to serve as mayor following the resignation of Robert Boelens in 1971. He ran for the mayoral office in 1973 and was elected, but lost a re-election bid in 1976. He later moved to Chicago to serve in the Greater Institutional AME Church. He returned to Grand Rapids in retirement in 1999, but spent the last year of his life in Lisle, Ill., where he died of a stroke in 2009. A statue in his honor stands outside the Grand Rapids city hall.

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